I ENTERED the high school through the service door, made my way to the second floor, and walked into the auditorium from the rear. There was the stage I had last seen 35 years earlier: The immense gray fire curtain hung almost to the stage floor - torn from top to bottom. A din of voices filled the huge hall, now warehousing students whose teachers are absent. I wanted to close the circle of memory and fresh observation. My last moments in Detroit's Pershing High School, like many of the best of earlier moments, were from that stage - as commencement speaker, debater, member of the chorus, the school play.
For the class of '54 it had been a successful school: State football champions, a superb debate and forensics program, a music department headed by the choral director for the Detroit Symphony. Two from my class went to Harvard, many others to fine state universities. Pershing had a crowded but well balanced school population of nearly 4,000, about one-third black, with large white ethnic and white southern blocks. Today Pershing is 88 percent black, 11 percent Middle Eastern, and 1 percent ``other.''
Dr. Emeral Crosby, the current principal, had been on the ``nation at risk'' education task force that issued its report a half dozen years ago. The United States is a little less at risk today educationally, he says, mostly due to gains in the South. ``But not a whole lot less,'' he quickly adds, ``and not in the urban areas where we have to depend on our own resources, without state and federal help.
``The dropout rate has not improved in the inner schools since '83. We're not doing much for Hispanic youngsters moving into the country. Teachers are not getting the benefit of technological advances. We're putting more pressure on teaching staffs - licensing qualifications and standards for pay. But we haven't improved the environment for the students.''
Pershing had been kept impeccably clean: Janitors were always visible on their waxing and dry-mopping rounds. Even today the library is an oasis of order and calm. But water streaks in one corner are sign of a deterioration far worse elsewhere in the building.
Times have changed. We were a working-class school in the '50s. All of my crowd had jobs - and our own cars. Today 400 of the 2,200 students apply for a free lunch; more would, but for the stigma of welfare.
Dr. Crosby's biggest challenge today is attendance. His goal is to improve average daily attendance from 81 percent into the mid-90 percent range. Ninth grade is the critical year. A freshman class of 600 washes out quickly to some 400. The dropout rate of 43 percent, over time, Crosby says, is probably nearer 20 percent if the common stretchout into five years and night-school attendance are considered.
Flight from the northeast Detroit community continues. Now it is black flight, not white, as middle-class blacks move out to nearby Southfield and Oak Park. Southern blacks and Middle Easterners replace them.
Those who make it to high school are still the fortunate. ``A lot of their friends end up in jail,'' Crosby observes. ``Five blocks down the street they're building one of the largest prisons in Michigan, an $84 million plant for 300 inmates - and they can't come up with $5 million to fix up the school.''
Detroit went through the hard times, harder than the rest of the nation - Vietnam, Watergate, the stress of desegregation, industrial abandonment. When college students were marching in the streets, Pershing's students saw on TV where they would be in six months - in rice paddies.
Desegregation has created another problem for the school - a brain drain. After a desegregation order in 1976, the city created three new citywide schools in the arts, sciences, and math. These have stripped Detroit's regional schools of those scholars and performers who can help bring the thrill of achievement to students and faculty.
Improving attendance and raising the school's grade-point average to the city average are realistic goals. But they are a little sad. The class of '54 had far higher sights.